Surendhar Reddy

Being right, big time in a big way.

While I was reading my daily Stratechery update today, I came across this fascinating story about OpenDoc. In the article, I discovered an exceptional question-and-answer session that Steve Jobs held with developers in 1997, just months after Apple had acquired Next.

In the session, towards the end, a developer inquires about OpenDoc

Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. It’s sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java and any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years.

To which Jobs responds,

You know, you can please some of the people some of the time, but…

One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas.

I’m sure that there are some things OpenDoc does — probably even more than I’m not familiar with — that nothing else out there does. I’m sure that you can make some demos, maybe a small commercial app, that demonstrates those things. The hardest thing is how does that fit into a cohesive larger vision that’s going to allow you to sell eight billion dollars or ten billion dollars of product a year?

One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room and I’ve got the scar tissue to prove it and I know that it’s the case. As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer? Not starting with, “Let’s sit down with the engineers and and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that”, and I think that’s the right path to take.

The most interesting insight for me from this answer was how being right some times in some areas is wrong in the long term.

What I mean is, in the short term (in business), any solution that gives a bit of relief (money and time-wise) sounds like a good thing. While it is good to find these solutions that are hacks once in a while and hold on to it, it should not end up being our lifestyle, especially the ones that stop us from exploring the bigger picture and growing.

If it ends up being our lifestyle, we start encouraging ideas, solutions that sound correct for that moment, and never think beyond it, and this silos our thinking. It’s okay if we are happy with it. Otherwise, we have to change how we feel about it.

If we want to be successful in most cases, it’s not about being right, but it’s about being right big time in a big way. It doesn’t necessarily mean we always have to work on solutions that solve more significant problems, but even the small issues we choose to work on have to connect to something big.

I think Michael J. Mauboussin summarized it well, “Focus not on the frequency of correctness, but the magnitude of correctness.”